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Sugar and Spice: Two "Negro Ladies" Take Center Stage

Review: Sugar and Spice on Stage

One of the most surprising Broadway hits of the last few years is now on national tour, doing surprisingly good business in surprisingly big houses. Surprisingly, because _Having Our Say_ isn't a blockbuster musical or a star vehicle. It's not even a play, really. It's just a pair of elderly "maiden ladies" telling the story of their long lives. It recently filled Hartford's large-scale Bushnell Auditorium with enthusiastic audiences, quiet humor and wisdom, and two radiant performances.

Sadie and Bessie Delany were both over 100 years old in 1993, when their life story became a best seller. The stage version of _Having Our Say_ is a dramatization, largely verbatim, of that book. Addressing the audience as if we were a newspaper interviewer, warily at first but soon warming to us (and we to them), the sisters launch into a century's worth of reminiscences.

They remember their black father, born in slavery but rising to become second in his college class (the valedictorian was their mixed-race mother) and an Episcopalian bishop. They recall their sheltered girlhood in the "Negro" middle class in Raleigh, North Carolina, and their first experiences of Jim Crow segregation and lynch-law violence. They relive the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s when they were young professionals in New York, Sadie a teacher and Bessie a dentist. They reflect on the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, when "we thought maybe our country would finally grow up."

Their lives are in many ways typical, but in many others extraordinary. Their keen-eyed observations of their lives and times constitute a fascinating social history of this century from a perspective rarely seen, that of independent black women.

The sisters are a study in contrasting personalities. Sadie, the elder by two years, is a "mama's girl," quiet and dutiful. Bessie is impetuous and outspoken, quick to anger and slow to cool ("I can forgive, but I can't forget"). They are "molasses and vinegar ... sugar and spice." The distinction is paralleled in Sadie's admiration for the accommodationist gradualism of Booker T. Washington and Bessie's affinity with the fiery militancy of W.E.B. Du Bois (both men were friends of their family).

But their story -- engrossing, penetrating, and often very funny -- is only half the reason to see this show. The other half is the two splendid actresses who mesmerize us for two enchanting hours. Neither Micki Grant nor Lizan Mitchell is old, much less as ancient as their characters; but while Grant can't quite manage to look a day over 85, Mitchell is totally convincing as a centenarian at least three times her age.

Grant's Sadie is warm and solid, sober and motherly, a stabilizing presence with a rock-solid pride in herself and her people. Mitchell's Bessie is frail, feisty and funny, full of outrage (and outrageousness) but just as easily moved to tears. The sisters constantly finish each other's sentences -- these are oft-told tales -- and bicker now and then, but there's a deep, century-old bond between them that is wonderfully captured by the performers.

Halfway through the show, the sitting room in which the sisters have received us rotates to disclose the kitchen, where they set about fixing the annual feast they prepare to commemorate their father's birthday. Thomas Lynch's domestic setting is inset within a large screen showing pictures from the Delany family album and archive photos from a century of history, adding another imaginative dimension to the narrative and making the women themselves sometimes appear to be sepia memories come to life.

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